New Classical Tracks: A wide-ranging 'Journey'

Sharon Isbin -- Journey to the New World
Sharon Isbin -- Journey to the New World.
Photo courtesy the artist

Guitarist Sharon Isbin recently signed a new contract with Sony, committing her to several new recordings. The first in the series is called "Journey to the New World." It begins with 16th century lute works, and winds its way into the music of today.

"Joan Baez was my first musical hero," Isbin said. "I always loved her singing. It's always moved me deeply."

When Isbin approached British composer John Duarte about writing a suite inspired by the music of Baez, he loved the idea. Isbin had previously recorded a work of Duarte's, based on the folk music of the Appalachian Mountains, so she knew he'd be perfect for this project.

The next step was to get the blessing of Joan Baez, who had been touring all over the world celebrating the 50th anniversary of her career.

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When Isbin finally caught up with her in New York, Baez was very enthusiastic about the idea, and eventually offered to sing on the recording as well.

"It was really a thrill to rehearse with her in my own apartment in New York," Isbin said. "It was fun because we were chatting like old friends."

Then Joan Baez asked Isbin to play something for her.

"So she took a chair, put it four feet in front of me and sat down, and I began to play. Normally I play with my eyes closed but I opened them to just see what was happening, and she had tears streaming down her face," said Isbin. "It was a very special moment. And to think this is the woman whose music has made me cry for years. I can't begin to tell you what that was like."

Before recording the Joan Baez Suite, Isbin traveled to England for a coaching session with Duarte, who told her one of his favorite pieces in the suite was the folk song, "The Unquiet Grave."

"He said it was the spookiest setting he's ever done. What it begins with is parallel fifths in the bass, and then the melody comes on top of that. And basically what I hear is like a ghost pacing," Isbin explained.

At the time that he coached Sharon Isbin, John Duarte was dying of cancer.

Isbin was able to include one of her favorites in this suite after getting the approval of its composer, Pete Seeger.

"One of the songs I felt very strongly about having in the suite was 'Where Have All the Flowers Gone.' The setting that John did for that actually had something to do with Schubert's 'Trockne Blumen.' He adds 'Taps' on top of the melody. That's very haunting because that's the bugle call played at the funeral of fallen service people."

Mark O'Connor's "Strings and Threads Suite" has its roots in Ireland. When O'Connor first played this solo violin work for Sharon Isbin, she knew right away it would be magnificent for violin and guitar.

O'Connor had a background in many styles of guitar playing -- classical, steel-string, pick-style, flat-picking -- so Isbin was in for a surprise when she finally had time to learn the suite.

"About a month before the premiere I pulled it out and started working on it, and realized that a lot of it was not playable. And then I began to panic, and realized we'd have to rework it to make it playable for guitar," said Isbin. "We spent two full days together, measure by measure, revoicing the work and turning it into a new fabulous work."

There's a variety of musical styles heard on this new recording which take the listener on a musical adventure.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin artfully explores Renaissance lute music, English folksongs, and original works by living composers who've inspired her to "Journey to the New World."